Matt Damon looks terrible. But that’s the point. The make-up department has slathered his face in scabs, bruises and dirt. The black circles under his eyes match his outfit and sneakers (he hasn’t donned his spacesuit yet). His hair and beard are matted and pinned with barrettes. “I have these hair extensions in,” he says. “I look like I should be playing in a rock band.”
Damon might look like he would fit in at a Bushwick dive bar, but he’s actually impersonating an astronaut. It’s February in Budapest, Hungary, and we’re on the set of The Martian, which he’s making with British director Ridley Scott of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator fame and Exodus: Gods and Kings infamy. The shoot is nearly complete. The story is structured around Mars days (called Sols, which are 39 minutes longer than Earth days), starting at Sol 6 and ending on Sol 549. “Today, I think we’re on 547,” Damon says. “I’m living on Mars time.”
Damon is the obvious choice for Watney. He’s perhaps the most likeable actor in Hollywood not named Tom Hanks. When he speaks, he opens his eyes wide and smiles. He likes to laugh, and when he laughs, his eyes crinkle. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis once called him the contemporary ideal for the “American character.” No other actor “can better vault across rooftops and in and out of genres and make you care greatly if he falls. He’s so homespun that he could have sprung wholly formed from a corn silo.” Damon might be the only actor capable of making Watney seem more like your lovable but slightly inappropriate cousin than a misogynist frat boy.
Did you have to lose weight?
I talked to Ridley about it because I’ve lost weight before for movies. We had about six months. And I said, “That’s perfect. I’ll lose about 30 or 40 pounds, and we’ve got to shoot all that stuff first.” And he went, “Fuck that.”
Your character is offbeat and kind of raunchy.
And yet really capable and smart. The writer Drew Goddard said he read the book and he fell in love with it, and he wanted to do because it was like a love letter to science. And he wanted to make that cool. In one sense, the guy’s an incredible nerd. He’s a botanist. But that’s really what’s cool about the character in the movie. He needs every single one of his skills to save his life. It’s fun to play a character who’s smarter than you. He gets to the right answers quicker than I would. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in my surface suit on set thinking, I wouldn’t last 20 minutes on Mars. Every mistake is life-threatening.
One of the many things I love about Matt Damon is his infectious charm and easy-going attitude. While he’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, he never acts like one. He’s always grounded and honest, willing to answer anything with a smile.
So was that year and a half off by accident or intentional?
The first six months was intentional because we moved from New York to LA, so just to be around the kids for that transition I took time off. And then I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to do. I mean you see what’s out there…it’s tough. The movies that have really been my bread and butter for twenty years, they don’t make them anymore. They really don’t. It’s really very hard to get the money together. A lot of that stuff is migrating to television. They’re more apt to take a huge risk on a high concept idea than on a kitchen sink drama or something. When this came along, I went ‘how many of these movies will I be able to really do that I’ll like, that are original and aren’t just a knockoff of something else?’